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Russia arrested opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to widespread protests.

What’s happening, part 1.

- January 27, 2021
Alexei Navalny, August 2013 (cc) ermakov via Flickr.

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, as Russians were protesting against the Kremlin in early 2021 and dissenter Alexei Navalny was returning to the country, Good Authority contributor Joshua Tucker asked political scientists how they interpreted these events. This analysis was originally published in the Washington Post on January 28, 2021. For more on this topic, see Part 2 of this series. 

On Jan. 17, 2021, Alexei Navalny, perhaps the best-known domestic critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, returned to Russia in dramatic fashion after recovering in Germany from what he claims was deliberate poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok, allegedly by agents of the Kremlin. Navalny was promptly arrested at the airport upon his arrival in Moscow, setting the stage for nationwide protests across Russia that resulted in over 3,000 arrests. The protests look likely to resume on Sunday.

What does Navalny’s return and the protests against his arrest mean for Russian politics?

With an eye toward whether, as Alexey Kovalev wrote in the New York Times, “something special just happened in Russia,” I reached out to my colleagues in the PONARS Eurasia network of research scholars. What follows are lightly edited versions of some of the many responses.

Dueling for the soul of Russia

Peter Rutland, professor of government, Wesleyan University

Navalny is pursuing a high risk/high reward strategy, determined to prevail in what is turning into a personal duel between him and Putin for the soul of Russia. But Evgeny Minchenko is right when he argues that what is driving the movement are the grievances of ordinary Russians the stagnant economy, pervasive corruption, the pandemic and not the personal fate of Navalny, nor the lavish palaces that Putin’s cronies are building.

Navalny has drawn inspiration from the sustained protests in Belarus and in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, which showed the depth of popular discontent and which continued even after the protest leaders were arrested. Navalny has built a national network that has now proved itself capable of mounting mass protests in dozens of cities. His strategy is simple to smash Putin’s United Russia party by denying it a majority in the September 2021 state Duma elections. That will also disable United Russia as a tool that the Kremlin relies on to control the regions.

Navalny brings politics back to Russia

Regina Smyth, professor of political science, Indiana University

Since 2011, when he labeled the ruling party, United Russia, the Party of Crooks and Thieves, Navalny has continuously redefined electoral competition. This week’s events demonstrated his growing influence as Russia’s fall 2021 elections approach.

After the coronavirus pandemic began, Navalny’s messaging extended opposition rhetoric beyond calls for democracy and rights protections to highlight the Kremlin’s lack of responsiveness in the face of growing societal demands. Navalny’s latest video exposé, linking Putin’s lavish lifestyle to Kremlin refusals to improve everyday life, encompasses a new 2021 campaign platform that echoes existing social concerns.

Navalny’s team’s electoral innovation amplifies the message. When allowed to run in elections, they introduce new campaign organizations and tactics. When the government prevents them from running in elections, they organize to push for ballot access, and protest to disrupt elections. And they develop tools like the 2019 Smart Vote app urging voters to support acceptable candidates over United Russia loyalists. These strategies can be replicated in races across Russia, forcing the Kremlin to cope with new political uncertainty.

The Kremlin’s “If not Putin then who?” mantra no longer works

Dinissa Duvanova, associate professor of international relations, Lehigh University

The “Berlin Patient,” Navalny, became the anti-Putin, upgraded to the challenger, although perhaps only a fraction of Russians could visualize him as Russia’s leader. The opposition to the corrupt system of government has crystallized into opposition to Putin personally — a very important development for the authoritarian regime that over the last two decades grew increasingly personalistic.

On Jan. 23, protesters in more than 122 Russian cities chanted “Putin is a thief” and “Down with the czar.” Russian-language media are discussing Navalny’s arrest as a Nelson Mandela-style path to the presidency. His wife, Yulia, was christened Tikhanovskaya 2.0, after the 2020 Belarusian presidential candidate.

The Kremlin-serving “If not Putin then who?” discourse, used to portray Putin as the only politician capable of leading the country, is now defunct. After 360 million “freedom to Navalny” hashtag views on TikTok and 96 million YouTube views of “Putin’s Palace,” Putin is publicly defending himself. It is not clear, however, if the defamation campaign that Kremlin-controlled media have launched against Navalny will be successful in painting him as an agent of foreign enemies and noncompliant oligarchs plotting behind Putin’s back.

Navalny cracks only the facade

Danielle N. Lussier, associate professor of political science, Grinnell College

The protests that followed Navalny’s return to Russia, while exhibiting some cracks on the facade of political control, have not shaken the regime’s foundation. Over 3,000 participants have been arrested, sending a clear signal that these protests, like those before, will not be tolerated. Additional repressive measures might also be adopted to further curb potential activism and support. It was in the months following the 2011 demonstrations against electoral fraud that Putin undertook some of Russia’s most intense measures to intimidate the opposition, including dramatically increased fines for participating in unsanctioned rallies, expansion of the definition of treason and an Internet censorship law, among others.

These actions have hampered street protests from coalescing into a broader political movement. While Navalny has succeeded in some key ways in organizing despite these measures, he is not a unifying figure. And while there are more people willing to decry elements of the regime than there were a few years ago, Putin’s approval rating at the end of November was still 65 percent. Although some Russians have become more comfortable expressing outrage in this instance, there is little indication that they will form the basis of a long-standing and committed democratization movement.